The suburbs get stereotyped as restaurant deserts, but the truth is Boston-area chefs got over their resistance to suburbia years ago.
Ming Tsai helped pave the way in the late 1990s, when he opened Blue Ginger in Wellesley. Concord, Lexington, and other moneyed towns were the next frontier. Then places such as Burlington and Waltham became magnets for accomplished restaurateurs, drawn by cheaper rents, plentiful parking, and residents and workers eager for more local eating options.
Nancy Batista-Caswell was part of that movement. She opened her first two restaurants, Ceia and Brine, in Newburyport in 2010 and 2013, respectively. The former trawls the European coast for inspiration; the latter is a chichi showcase for oysters, crudo, and chops. Their culinary ambition might not stand out in Boston, but it does at that end of the commuter rail.
Now Batista-Caswell has made a reverse migration.
In November, she launched her third restaurant, Oak + Rowan, in Fort Point. Her Boston debut is every bit as ambitious as her first two, with luxe touches like a caviar program and tableside cocktail cart.
The area already has a cluster of high-end restaurants, including Menton, Sportello, and Row 34, and plenty of high-end housing to match, and Batista-Caswell likes the idea of helping make the neighborhood a dining destination. She also envisions Fort Point’s restaurants working cooperatively, so that diners might get drinks at Bastille Kitchen, dinner at Blue Dragon, and nightcaps and dessert at Oak + Rowan.
“More collaborative rather than more competitive,” as she puts it.
Entering that crowded market also comes with risks.
“The city is challenging,” Batista-Caswell acknowledges, “and can be frightful because of overhead costs, but there’s a yin yang to it.” Expenses may be higher, but Boston offers a potentially large — and lucrative — clientele.
So there’s caviar, served on a Portuguese muffin, and several entrees are in the $30s and $40s. The bill can escalate quickly.
But the experience of eating here feels pleasantly down to earth. Oak + Rowan is classy without being pretentious, its service warm but not snooty, albeit sometimes too solicitous. On one visit, no fewer than five employees ask how we’re enjoying dinner, including one who makes three stops in about an hour. (I don’t think they realize a reviewer was in the house; I think they are just overdoing it.)
The decor is modern-meets-warehouse, or maybe chic-meets-rustic, with brick walls, a marble bar, corduroy bar stools, and massive windows. One downside to putting a restaurant in a former industrial building: It can be awfully drafty.
One of our meals there is during a snowstorm, and two tables have been taken out of service because frigid air is seeping through the metal loading-dock door adjacent to them. On the same night, several dishes arrive tepid, presumably having lost their heat traveling from the kitchen through the chilly dining room to our table.
But many dishes at Oak + Rowan are so excellent I still savor them in my mind.
The beef sirloin is a stunning piece of meat — deeply flavorful, gorgeously seared (Batista-Caswell says the secret is cast iron), cooked precisely to order (a feat that’s sadly uncommon), and served with a decadent, crisp tallow bread pudding made from beef renderings and bone marrow.
There’s no meat in the tarragon fettuccine, and it doesn’t need it: It has vibrant flavor thanks to cauliflower, cara cara oranges, and pistachios, the sweet and nutty tastes accentuated by the zip of pink peppercorn. Hake can be bland, but this fillet, also beautifully seared, is jazzed up with yellow split peas, mustard greens, and seafood sausage (it’s made from the rest of the hake, an admirable way to avoid waste).
Flaky Arctic char with Beluga lentils, apple, and horseradish is perfect — clean, simple, unfussy. The star ingredient in squid ink farfalle is rich pheasant cooked in its own fat.
That same delicious game appears in the pasta tasting menu, offered only on Thursdays for $49 a person. (Officially, everyone at the table must order it, but our server bends the rule when we inquire.)
The first course is dull, basically just pasta in broth. But the next three we’d return for: garganelli with shaved egg yolk and that wonderful pheasant, cheese-filled tortelli with hazelnuts, and rich lasagna made with smoked bacon and beef Bolognese.
Some dishes here simply aren’t memorable, from an ordinary spinach salad to a bland beef consomme to a ho-hum pureed parsnip-apple soup. But the menu stands out for its creative touches: juiced squash mixed into the sourdough bread (although why is it refrigerator-cold?), cranberries and veal sweetbreads alongside lobster, grapefruit and pine nuts with tuna crudo.
And each dessert, by former Harvest pastry chef Brian Mercury, is a beautiful artwork, like a palette splashed with a rainbow of colors.
Mercury is known for his complicated, multi-ingredient creations, which is why Batista-Caswell jokingly calls him the “king of seven items in a dish.”
Actually, make that nine. His riotously colorful “winter citrus” contains grapefruit sorbet, mint oil, rosewater foam, cara cara oranges, pickled kumquats, lemongrass mousse, Earl Grey tea/dried apricot granola, pomegranate reduction, and an edible invention he calls a “milk foam crisp” that requires a dehydrator and an immersive blender. The “cranberry swirl fro-yo,” which is essentially a fruity panna cotta, contains sheep’s milk yogurt, berries, pears, white balsamic vinegar, lemon oil, bee pollen, honey, rosemary, and meringue.
This is not the sort of man likely to offer a simple scoop of vanilla. But he does make ice creams and sorbets in unconventional flavors, like sweet potato, passionfruit kombucha, and Aperol-ginger. They are very good — even worth traveling from the suburbs for.
OAK + ROWAN
321 A St., Fort Point, South Boston, 857-284-7742, www.oakandrowan.com
All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices: Appetizers $6-$19. Entrees $18-$49. Desserts $8-$12.
Hours: Mon-Sat lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner 5:15 p.m.-midnight
Noise level: Moderate to loud
What to order: Squid ink farfalle with pheasant, beef sirloin, Arctic char, hake, tarragon fettuccine, pasta tasting menu, “winter citrus” dessert, cranberry swirl fro-yo